At first glance, foot washing appears to be a relic of the past and irrelevant for the 21stcentury American Mennonite Church. After all, few of us walk long distances on dusty roads wearing sandals. We tend to drive on paved roads and if we want our feet washed we are privileged to have the option of taking a daily shower. Furthermore, we live in an increasingly virtual society. We have virtual communities and virtual churches. We play virtual games and can even catch virtual monsters with our cell phones. In such a culture, it is surely obsolete to have a real person touch and wash real feet. Or is it?
Perhaps bending real knees, washing real feet with real water and drying them with a real towel is, in fact, a powerful, tangible, countercultural gesture that reminds us of three realities.
The act of Jesus washing the disciples' feet in John 13:1-5 is followed by a dialogue between Jesus and Peter (13:6-11) and indicates a first reality. Washing evokes our continual need for cleansing as we walk in this world, the necessity of constant conversion. In this concrete sign of cleansing water, grace becomes touchable, tangible and mediated to us through another.
Jesus' monologue in 13:12-17, points to the second reality of foot washing: a life lived in humility and in service to others. When our body physically bends down to wash another's feet, we are reminded to let go of a desire to dominate others and elbow our way to first place. Our body informs our soul.
Third, even though only the Gospel of John recounts Jesus' gesture, this act gives us a glimpse into the profound nature of God: a humble God who lets go of privileges in order to love to the very end. We tend to look for a powerful God in the heavens. In Jesus' gesture, however, we find God at our feet, not in adoration or in an obedient servile position, but in a life-giving, loving act.